Snowpack/runoff news: Snowpack on Grand Mesa low for April 1, Sangres melting out

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service:

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Stephanie Kampf):

Throughout the West, communities and farms rely on melting snow for water supply. Each year, water managers track mountain snowpack levels in the spring to forecast the water supply for the summer growing season. For decades, snowpack conditions measured on or around April 1 have been used to generate river flow forecasts that inform water supply plans.

As of late March, the Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) stations operated by the Natural Resource Conservation Service are showing very low snow conditions in many parts of the west. In drought-stricken California, the snow water equivalent (SWE), or water contained within the snowpack, is only five to 25 percent of the median for this time of year, with many stations having no remaining snow. Oregon snowpack is not much higher, at only sevent to 38 percent of the median. California hasn’t had an above normal snow year since 2011, leaving much of the state in the most severe category of drought.

Compared to California, snow conditions in the Upper Colorado River Basin look much better, but this is still a lower than normal snow year. SNOTEL stations above Lake Powell collectively are reporting SWE levels that are 74 percent of the median for this time of year. But up on the Grand Mesa, which supplies much of the drinking water for the Grand Valley, a hot, dry winter has left a near record low snowpack. Since records began at Mesa Lakes in 1987, the only year with a lower end of March SWE was 2002. At the opposite extreme, 2015 winter temperatures were among the highest recorded at both Mesa Lakes and Park Reservoir SNOTEL sites, with 15 days in 2015 reporting the highest recorded daily mean temperatures.

What does this all mean for flow in streams draining the Mesa? A short spring window still remains for snowpack to recover. At Mesa Lakes and Park Reservoir SNOTEL stations, the snowpack typically reaches its maximum level in late April, so spring storms could still boost the snowpack, provided temperatures stay cold enough for the snow to stay on the ground. But even if the snowpack recovers in April, the historical record suggests spring runoff from the Mesa will still be well below normal this year. In 2002, the record low snow year, the snowpack was not much lower than it is in 2015, and total runoff recorded downstream at the Plateau Creek stream gauging station near Cameo was only 15 percent of the median during April through July.

While water supply storage reservoirs help buffer from the effects of low snow years, several low snow years in a row can severely stress water supplies, as this year is showing in California. So, as the growing season begins, this is a good year to plan ahead for conserving water in the warmer months to come.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Medano Creek has begun to run early at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve this year.

What normally is a small trickle coming down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the beginning of April is now a broad stream welcoming visitors at the main parking lot and picnic area.

“In the 20 years I’ve been here, this is the earliest I’ve seen the creek come down,” Park Ranger Patrick Myers said.

Warm temperatures have prompted the arrival of what’s usually a May and June highlight of a trip to the park when the creek and the dune combine to form Colorado’s closest thing to beach front property.

Park Geologist Andrew Valdez, who also tracks weather at the dunes, said in an email that March’s average temperature of 39 degrees was five degrees warmer than average.

Peak flow measured where the stream leaves the forest is usually in late May at 40 cubic feet per second.

Tuesday’s flows were just above 12 cfs.

Those warm temperatures have taken a toll on the Sangre de Cristo’s snowpack, especially at the headwaters of Medano Creek above the park.

The snow there shrunk from 14 inches deep on March 24 to just one inch by Wednesday, according to a Natural Resources Conservation Service snow gauge.

The warm temperatures also have contributed to the thawing of the sand in the dunes, which when coupled with spring winds out of the Southwest, restarts the process that pushes the dunes against the mountains to the east.

Medano Creek, along with its counterpart Sand Creek on the park’s northern edge, help redistribute the sand in the opposite direction of the wind.

While the creek is normally a big draw when the park has its biggest crowds in summer, seeing it now can mean beating the crowds.

Over the last five years, park visitation in April has ranged from 9,000 to just under 11,000 people, roughly a fifth the size of the crowds that come in June and July.

Penrose water pipeline nears completion —

Penrose Beaver and Northern station via Penrose History
Penrose Beaver and Northern station via Penrose History

From (Jessi Mitchell):

Construction has finished on a $10.3 million pipeline in Penrose that will bring water seven miles from the Arkansas River into the community.

After the town was hit hard by drought in 2002, water district administrators have been trying to come up with a contingency plan to prevent a repeat. Contractors started construction in July and just laid the final pieces of the 12-inch pipe. Testing will begin soon…

Water district president Ron Gasser is happy with the progress as well. He says the pipeline is slated to start pumping water April 13. It will supplement the main water supply from El Paso County in hopes that Penrose never runs out of water again…

Through their water bills, business owners and neighbors agreed to help pay back the nearly $10 million dollar loan for the project over the next 30 years. Penrose also received a $800,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs.

There is a consensus that the new pipeline will help with the community’s expansion. “We’ve been growing a lot and pleased to have seen a lot of Front Range visitors coming to the area,” says Mugasis, “so the fact that we can provide uninterrupted service is very reassuring for us.”

The Penrose water board still has to decide how much of the water they will utilize and how much will be stored for a not-so-rainy day. The district hopes to reserve at least a year’s worth of water.

More infrastructure coverage here.

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable will wrap up its Basin Implementation Plan next week #COWaterPlan

Basin roundtable boundaries
Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

For many Arkansas Basin Roundtable members, it seemed they were speaking Greek when they started meeting in 2005. But next week, the group finally will wrap up its portion of the state water plan.

The roundtable will fine-tune the draft basin implementation plan Wednesday. A public comment meeting to review the plan will be from 10:30 a.m. to noon, followed by the roundtable meeting at 12:30 p.m.

“It’s really come a long way, and a lot of work has gone into it,” said Jim Broderick, roundtable chairman. “The review is set up so that in the future, it’s an active plan that can be used.”

A draft for review is posted on the roundtable’s website (arkansasbasin. com). The draft plan is the culmination of the roundtable’s past decade of work.

The plan starts out with a quote by Frank Milenski, an Otero County farmer and writer who fought for agricultural water rights during his long tenure on the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and through the Catlin Canal: “When you first start out, understanding water is like trying to understand Greek. After a while it starts getting to where it kinda registers; then if you stick with it, it becomes fascinating. Water is the most valuable thing there is on Earth.”

To illustrate the point, the document is complex and weighty, especially for those who have not been along for the whole ride. Fascinating would not be the first adjective most would choose to describe it, but the value of water to future growth is apparent on nearly every page.

The full basin implementation plan is 773 pages long, including appendices. It has three major purposes:

  • To organize Arkansas River basin issues under the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s state water plan, being drafted under Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2013 executive order.
  • To highlight future challenges faced by basin water users.
  • To describe the need and action plans for current and future water projects.
  • The Arkansas Basin Roundtable is one of nine in the state formed in 2005 to address the municipal water gap in Colorado, first identified in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. The state’s goal was to fill a projected gap in water supplies with the least damage to agriculture, recreation and wildlife habitat.

    The roundtable’s earliest meetings often were dominated by position statements from water interests throughout the basin, but soon shifted toward obtaining state water supply reserve account grants for projects up and down the Arkansas River. Presentations over the years also increased the group’s knowledge of short- and long-term water projects.

    The group also has worked to insert the need for future agricultural water supply and for more storage into state planning.

    For the past two years, the group has been focused on gaining consensus about the water plan. Last year, it hosted 17 public meetings to solicit input on its basin implementation plan.

    More IBCC — basin roundtable coverage here.

    California Governor Brown orders mandatory watering restrictions for cities and towns #drought #ColoradoRiver

    West Drought Monitor March 24, 2015
    West Drought Monitor March 24, 2015

    From the Associated Press (Fenit Nirappl) via The Pueblo Chieftain:

    California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered officials Wednesday to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history as surveyors found the lowest snow level in the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping.

    Standing in dry, brown grass at a site that he said normally would be snow-covered this time of year, Brown announced he had signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut the state’s overall water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.

    The move will affect residents, businesses, farmers and other users.

    “We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” Brown said at a news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, where state water officials found no snow on the ground for the first time in their manual survey of the snowpack. “We have to pull together and save water in every way we can.”

    Brown’s order follows previous cutbacks imposed by the water board. It will require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to significantly cut water use; direct local governments to replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping; and create a temporary rebate program for consumers who replace old water-sucking appliances with more efficient ones.

    “We’re in a new era; the idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past,” Brown said.

    The order calls on local water agencies to implement tiered water pricing that charges higher rates as more water is used and requires agricultural users to report more water use information to state regulators.

    Brown’s office said that would boost the state’s ability to enforce laws against illegal water diversions and water waste.

    The order also prohibits new homes and developments from using drinkable water for irrigation if the structures lack water-efficient drip systems. In addition, the watering of decorative grasses on public street medians is banned.

    The snowpack has been in decline all year, and Wednesday’s survey showed the statewide snow water is equivalent to 5 percent of the historical average for April 1 and the lowest for that date since the state began record-keeping in 1950.

    Snow supplies about a third of the state’s water, and a lower snowpack means less water in California reservoirs to meet demand in summer and fall. There was no snow at the site of Wednesday’s manual survey near Echo Summit, about 90 miles east of Sacramento.

    “It is such an unprecedented lack of snow, it is way, way below records,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources.

    Brown previously declared a drought emergency and stressed the need for sustained water conservation, but the Democratic governor has come under increasing pressure to be more aggressive as the state enters its fourth year of drought.

    From InkStain (John Fleck):

    Craig Miller at KQED has a useful roundup of what sort of shortfalls California water users might see this summer as a result of drought:

  • Ag: “More than 400,000 acres of farmland were fallowed last year because of scarce water. Credible sources have estimated that figure could double this year.” That’s in the neighborhood of 10 percent of California’s irrigated acreage.
  • Big munis will have to cut back, but will not run out of water. Some rural systems will be stressed: “Cowin hastens to add that ‘the vast majority of our citizens will not run out of water,’ some already have, mostly in rural areas where wells have gone dry.”
  • Pressure on aquifers to make up for surface shortfalls will grow: “Groundwater resources will be stressed even more, as water-constrained farmers turn up the pumps to offset cuts in allocations from state and federal water projects.”